The importance of buses
By Councillor Richard Smith, Suffolk County Council Cabinet member for Economic Development, Transport Strategy and Waste.
Public and community transport in rural areas was the topic of a conference I attended recently, and which provided a great deal of food for thought.
Organised by Suffolk County Council’s passenger transport body Suffolk On Board, the Rural Transport Conversation event examined different ways in which services could be provided in the future.
For a largely rural county such as Suffolk this is an important topic because if people do not have access to a car they are largely reliant on public transport.
The purpose of the conference was not to come up with instant solutions, rather it was to examine potential ways of working in the future.
There were presentations on how demand responsive transport has been introduced in Kent by the county council there and operator Go2, a similar scheme in Swaffham, Norfolk, a route-planning programme by BT and the work of the National Community Transport Association.
We also heard from BACT Community Transport of Bungay of the issues facing community transport in Suffolk, which includes rising fuel prices, a shortage of volunteer drivers, and people still wary of leaving their homes post-covid.
These are tough times for bus operators. Fuel costs, driver shortages and passenger numbers are just some of the issues they are having to contend with.
Government funding has allowed us to pay contracted operators at levels prior to the pandemic, but passenger numbers are still not back to where there were pre-covid.
That funding is due to end in October, and while we are hopeful it may continue in some form there is no guarantee that it will.
No operator can run at a loss and, while Suffolk County Council has stepped in to help retain loss-making but socially important services, there is only so much that we can do with the fully committed resources that we have.
However, one piece of good news is that we are about to formally sign the bus passenger charter, a significant step in delivering even better services.
The charter will set out what passengers can expect from both the bus operators and Suffolk County Council, describing the standards of service that will be provided.
Those standards will apply to all bus companies, big and small, commercial or council-supported.
It is a key part of our bus service improvement plan, which sets out how we propose to deliver improved services to support resilient, connected, and sustainable communities across Suffolk, help meet the transition to net zero, and create economic opportunities that benefit everyone.
It is by working together with operators that we make bus services better, more appealing and running smoothly.
This will range from before you even set out on your journey – ensuring that there is up-to-date information about services and any disruptions – to what you can expect on your journey, what tickets you can buy and how you can pay for them.
Together we and the operators are working hard to provide the best possible bus service and this charter will play a big part in ensuring standards remain high.
However, the public also has a part to play. The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ applies here because if people do not use buses to the point where they become economically unviable then another phrase risks coming into use – ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’, and the loss of a bus service can have a highly detrimental effect on those people who do rely on it.
Passengers are the lifeblood of any bus service which is why I ask that if you have a journey to make, where there is a bus service available then please consider using it.
One bus can move as many people as several cars, which means more road space for vehicles that do need to be there, such as delivery vans or the emergency services.
The environmental benefit is that less vehicles on the roads also means cleaner air and the reduction of carbon emissions, something which is of benefit to us all.